In the wake of Deadspin breaking the Manti Te’o fake girlfriend story, there’s been plenty of hand-wringing, finger-pointing, face-palming, wanker-signing, and any other manual metaphor you can come up with. The most fascinating to me has been the reaction to the larger press outlets who initially championed the dead girlfriend angle as well as the response to a decidedly anti-mainstream sports blog exposing the fraud. Clearly, several high-profile columnist/reporters failed to adequately vet Te’o's version of events, and watching those who were duped justify themselves has been fascinating. And then there’s the latest from Pat Forde.
As someone who enjoyed Forde’s columns on ESPN for so long, I take no pleasure in what I’m about to do. But it has to be done. I’m sorry that Forde has to be the scapegoat here, but the hubris, condescension, and cognitive dissonance he displays in just a single piece of writing creates the perfect test subject. I’ll keep it simple:
Forde’s conclusion at the end of his column:
There are lessons to be learned from all this, but in the end I’m not sure anyone will come out of it better for the experience. The sad takeaway is that we once again must raise our levels of disbelief and distrust. Already a cynical society, we apparently need to ramp up the cynicism a little more. Because there are plenty of people out there ready, willing and more able than ever through the anonymity of the Internet, to perpetrate a lie.
The first fucking sentence of Forde’s column:
On an unnerving night when it was hard to know what to believe and who to trust, Jack Swarbrick convinced me.
In between, Forde chastises Te’o, “the media” (he graciously uses “we” to include himself in that group), and Deadspin for their roles in perpetuating the hoax, covering it up, and reporting it respectively. And among all this hand-wringing you’d expect to see Forde employ this new found “levels of disbelief and distrust” or “cynicism.” Here’s the extent of it:
Swarbrick says a private investigator hired by Notre Dame to look into the matter has evidence that Te’o was victimized by individuals who invented an online girl and engaged her in a relationship with the player. Due to privacy concerns, the school is not in a position to release that evidence…
In a column bemoaning the lack of follow-up questions and fact-checking in today’s “rapidly accelerating news cycle (and probably outright laziness),” Forde does exactly zero questioning and applies zero skepticism to Swarbrick. Forde laments, “we have developed a bad habit of simply repeating stories without independently verifying them,” then simply repeats Swarbrick’s version of events without even attempting to independently verify if an internal investigation actually ever happened in the first place. Not only does he not follow up himself, he expects Te’o (who is, again, at last one of the purveyors if not outright perpetrators of the hoax) to do the leg work for him: “hopefully Te’o will provide some documentation that corroborates what Swarbrick said.”
Here’s the real meat of the column:
Chin quivering and voice catching, the Notre Dame athletic director fought emotion in describing Manti Te’o as “the single most trusting individual I have ever met.” I know Swarbrick fairly well over the course of maybe two dozen interactions, both professional and personal – well enough to have a read on his personality. This was not a high-paid suit engaged in damage control; this was a man who sincerely believes that the most popular Fighting Irish football player in decades was wronged far more than he was wrong.
Swarbrick came to his Wednesday news conference armed with enough information to be certain that Te’o was the victim, not the perpetrator, of a vile hoax.
After listening to him, I believe Notre Dame.
See that? All Forde had to do was listen to Swarbrick to know he was telling the truth. No fact-checking. No other calls. No follow up. A bit further down, he throws out the old saw a bunch of other journalists have employed over the last couple days: “If your mother says she loves you, believe her. But check it out.” Apparently, Forde trusts Swarbrick more than his own mother. Forde displays the same mawkish acceptance of a storyline that his own column warns against just a few paragraphs down. That he does both under the same headline is actually pretty impressive.
Ultimately, Forde fails – in his first few paragraphs – to take the advice of his last:
And the next time we come across a feel-good story, we’ll all have to stop and ask ourselves whether we’re willing to believe it. That doesn’t feel very good.
I guess that’s why he didn’t.
UPDATE: Forde justifies his faith in Swarbrick thusly: “I know Swarbrick fairly well over the course of maybe two dozen interactions, both professional and personal – well enough to have a read on his personality.” Might I provide Pat a cautionary tale?